Saturday, October 27, 2012

Are Online Colleges the Solution? Arguably, NO!

Left: First year Philosophy students at Loyola Universtiy, ca. 1965. There is no way they could have received the quality education they did from any "online" or secondary educational outlet

In a recent TIME article, 'Reinventing College', online colleges-universities, including in the form of offering 'MOOCs' (massive open online courses) or as scaled-down for-profits offering outright credits (such as Udacity) have been bandied about as a solution to two major problems inherent in U.S. tertiary education:

1) The massive college debt accrued by graduates, now estimated at over $900 billion and which undermines their economic viability in a nation with few high paying decent jobs, and

2) The fact the U.S. now lags behind major competitors in terms of numbers of people in the workforce with college degrees. (The U.S. has currently 54 million compared to 127 million in India and 161 million in the OECD nations.)

Another sobering fact takeaway from the TIME piece: despite all the massive college debt "three semesters of college have produced a barely noticeable impact on critical thinking, complex reasoning  and writing skills" - according to a 2011 book, 'Academically Adrift'.

This is very serious indeed, because in today's multi-faceted economic and scientific world - where many complex issues bear on the electorate, from Keynesian stimulus advantage, to the supply side nonsense of Arthur Laffer, to the concept of 'aggregate demand', not to mention global warming-climate change and the consumption of fossil fuels beyond the practical EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) fuel source limit, we absolutely must have intelligent and well educated people to be able to process the information and make informed decisions. This often requires not only critical thinking and complex reasoning abilities but the knowledge by which to parse and sort out the competing claims. One therefore must be practiced in the application of critical thinking and complex reasoning to actual scientific and economic questions, especially if he is to comprehend the political-social implications inherent in differing decisions.

I maintain, despite all the hoopla about college "options" (i.e. replacing the formal college degree with one from an online venue) that there is no substitute for partaking in the actual, physical college environment.   Now, this is not to say some benefit can't arrive via MOOCs, e.g. such as at MIT:

and Yale University:

However,  intensive education toward a degree must be necessarily bound up with brick and mortar institutions. Why? Let me priovide several reasons:

1) Accreditation:

This is the sine qua non indicator for quality assurance. Given thousands of schools, universities, colleges, there must be some way - some standard - by which they can be judged, at least at the minimal level. Accreditation provides this. Hence, any degree-offering online substitute must at least be accredited by an outside entity of value itself. Else, its degree means nothing and won't to any prospective employer either.

What official body has accredited the institution of higher learning? There are six major accrediting bodies in the United States. In the case of the Southern U.S. (and for Loyola) the accrediting body is the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

2) Advantage of learning one-to-one (tutorials):

This is critical and maybe one of the most crucial components but may not be present (for obvious reasons) in distant learning. For example, this means when a student encounters a difficult impasse, as he or she surely will, he can meet one-to-one with a professor and hash out the difficulty. At Loyola, for example, professors were always available and also conducted tutorials (weekly meetings with only a few students for problem solving or question resolution purposes. )

When I taught  Space Physics (including labs) at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, I always set aside office hours to meet one- on- one with students having difficulties. I did the same when I taught at Harrison College (physics, math) in Barbados. Students often told me after the semester that these sessions meant more than the regular classroom contacts because they were more directly challenged to show their ability at more fundamental, as well as critical thinking levels.

Those office hours often meant the difference between a student doing well on a class project, or not. Or more critically, passing the course, or failing it. A student- I don't care how diligent he is, simply can't obtain the same measure of mastery without that intense contact which is directed to the sole purpose of resolving the difficulty. It simply isn't the same as staring at a passive computer monitor - or even an online tutorial or physics class when you can't get answers to questions or immediate feedback at that instant. (From the TIME author's piece, you can at Udacity, but it is kind of a 'cut and paste' homogeneous operation. For example, one of Udacity's general physics instructors - an Andy Brown - while he can toss out assorted questions every few minutes (the average college student's attention span is said to be 9-12 mins. before drifting), he cannot give you assorted lab materials and have you design your own experiment to measure the acceleration of gravity, g, on the spot!)

3) Development of Writing Skills:

Back in the 'day' - before the arrival of the egregious 'teacher evaluation forms' and hence the blackmail of profs to get unearned high grades, in-depth writing was part of nearly all courses, from physics to philosophy. Today, because of time constraints or whatever...that's almost entirely vanished. Very few college students are asked to write comprehensive (e.g. for homework)  essays such as we were at Loyola (in philosophy, English and theology) or engage in displaying the sort of complex reasoning, say in physics, as I've regularly demanded of my students in physics, or space physics. 'Writing' then, is regarded as mostly a marginal or side issue today, when in fact it is the core demonstration of thought, including advanced thought. If a student can't write, one can make the claim he can't think - or at least cogently and clearly express his thoughts, which amounts to the same thing.

Most college students today, according to assorted surveys, claim an average of 15 minutes of writing per nightly homework, compared to nearly 2 ½ hours back in the 1960s. However, and this is important, not even that 15 minute threshold is met by the online for profit outfits like Udacity - which seem to prefer short form answer, on-the-spot questions, responses. (The TIME writer never mentioned any advanced writing exercises, say in Andy Brown's Udacity physics class, along the lines of comparing Newtonian gravitational theory with Einsteinian general relativity, or how Newton's law of gravitation helped to refine Kepler's laws of planetary motion).

4) Socialization aspect and learning interactively as a group:

In the Loyola first year philosophy class (see image shown) we actually learned from each other. Using the "Socratic Method" (made famous by the character known as "Professor Kingsfield" in the series Paper Chase) our prof, Fr.Hecker , would press and probe students one by one to elicit the optimum answers and insights in exploring whatever aspect came up. Thus, as one student answered the question (and thereby introduced a new question for another) we referenced our own resolution by way of his or her answer. As the process continued, each new question pursued more deeply by Fr. Hecker , we assimilated it for further study, reference. This dynamic interplay is not possible when a single student tries to master a difficult subject via long distance access only. One way I could describe it is the class experience is three dimensional but the distance learner's is at most two dimensional.

Sure there are many advantages to distance learning, such as saving gas and time, as well as not having to expose oneself to thousands of people with different ideas (that you may not like) but the total college experience is to me, what makes it unique - and which one can't just obtain from online learning.

Lastly, there is the key issue of what is college for? As I've intimated many times before, I do not believe one can adopt a strictly utilitarian stance and absolutely expect you will land a high profile job, no matter how many tens of thousands you've shelled out. I am not alone in this!  In his own perceptive take ('The Myth of Higher Education') Dr. Stephen Mason in an issue of Integra the journal of Intertel, argued cogently that a huge error of American education is orientating it explicitly for the utilitarian purpose of making money or getting a job.

 As he points out, this is terribly short-sighted, and what if after enormous expense no remunerative job is forthcoming? (A serious possibility in today's world where even high tech computer and engineering jobs are being dispatched to India thanks to GE and Cisco). It therefore is extremely parlous and presumptive for a person to expend an enormous amount on either a standard 'brick and mortar' university education or an online -distant learning one, if the sole objective is to earn a living based on one's degree. In Mason's take(op. cit.):

 "the bottom line regarding a well -rounded education is that it has nothing to do with any kind of bottom line. Its value (non-monetary) is to be found in the quality it adds to one's life. It allows one to better appreciate music, art, history and literature. It contributes to a better understanding of language and culture, nature and philosophy. It expands rather than limits horizons and replaces faith and belief with reason and logic."

Mason adds that it "teaches a person to live - not to earn a living" and that living encompasses an impetus for further learning just for its own sake. If a fantastic, well-paying job also comes with it, that's icing on the cake. Fortunately, when I attended Loyola University (1964-67), the whole thrust was about two things: 1) critical thinking (now tested regularly on the Graduate Record Exam which must normally be taken before one undertakes post-graduate education) and 2) open inquiry that motivates further learning.

I have found both of these immensely crucial and useful in parsing today's complex political environment, which is why I also blog so often about poltical issues with complex subtexts - in the interests of sharing. I only wish more of our citizens would or could possess these same advantages in the interests of making fewer parlous electoral errors - which in the long run exact a terrible cost on our nation.

As for the online courses offered, such as those at Yale and MIT, I believe most would agree with me that they are best used for 'continuing education' of already degreed citizens. Learning in this sense ought not cease with a piece of paper or parchment but be continuous until one ceases to breathe .....or loses cognitive functions. If more Americans also agreed with this, we might see a much more intelligent, informed electorate opposed to voters (according to a UCLA political sci. prof on Chris Hayes' 'UP' this morning) who identify with Mitt Romney and his "values" whether he acts as the savage Rightist Plutocrat, or the phoney baloney "moderate".

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